Writing With Style
Helen Sword is a scholar, award-winning teacher, and poet who has published books and articles on modernist literature, higher education pedagogy, digital poetics, and academic writing. Born and raised in Southern California, she received her PhD in Comparative Literature from Princeton University and now teaches in the Centre for Academic Development at the University of Auckland. Her latest book is Stylish Academic Writing.
Can I start by asking you for your definition of style?
Yeah that’s an interesting one. In academic writing, style is quite a neutral word. That’s why I tend to use the word “stylishness” when I’m talking about what, probably in a more design and creativity context, you would just call style, but there are all these academic style guides that are really about rules, and not about style. So when people talk about academic style, often they just mean how do you cite sources? Where do you put commas to be correct according to this style or that style. That’s not necessarily my definition of style, but that’s the definition in the context I’m working within. Calling my book Stylish Academic Writing was an intentional oxymoron because people so often don’t associate anything academic with being stylish. The point I was trying to make is that everybody has a style.
When I was working on the book, I was thinking quite intentionally about comparisons with style in architecture, style in furniture, style in clothing, where we can probably all agree that there are a lot of different styles and we might have different opinions about what styles we like, or even what we would call stylish, but we generally agree on what is and isn’t an attempt to be stylish. To just kind of push the metaphor a bit further, a lot of academic writing, to me is kind of like the person who rolls out of bed in the morning, pulls on a pair of track pants and goes to work dressed like that, or worse yet, goes to a black tie reception or something. Whereas if somebody came decked out and a Mohawk or a bunch of piercings, you would at least say, well they’re being self-conscious about how they’re dressing. They’ve got a sense of style, even if I don’t necessarily like that sense of style myself. There’s a broad range of possibilities of what could be stylish writing, but the one thing they all have in common is that they’re all self-conscious. There’s a self-consciousness on the part of the writer. They’re making an effort. They’re making conscious choices. They’re not doing the writing equivalent of rolling out of bed and putting on the dirty clothes from the night before that just happened to be lying there.
So, stylishness, by its nature, is deliberate?
Yeah, it’s a deliberate effort to dress for the occasion. If you look at academics lecturing, some people really dress up. Some deliberately dress down. They don’t want to invoke that sense of authority. And then some will not think at all about what they’re wearing. And they’re the ones we’d probably associate with the absence of style. Same thing with writing—there are so many people who write the way they do because they’ve kind of unconsciously absorbed the style of the discipline. And not because they’re making conscious choices about how to communicate effectively.
Why, in academia, is convention so often taken almost as if it is physical law?
I think there’s a certain amount of resistance to stylishness in academia, not by everyone. But the idea that somehow, if you’re dressing things up, you’re therefore dumbing things down or you’re somehow not doing full justice to the ideas. One thing I found really interesting, researching the book, was the idea of ‘elegance.’ I could’ve called the book ‘Elegant Academic Writing’ and it would have sort of meant the same thing. In elegance, when we think about it in terms of again, clothing or furniture or something, we tend to equate it with a sense of style. Some indefinable sense of style. But in science and mathematics, it has quite a precise definition. Which is that it’s the shortest solution to a complex problem. That’s an elegant solution. So if you think about elegant writing in that way, it’s not necessarily shorter sentences, but it’s the best possible way of expressing what you need to express. And if you put that definition in front of academics, they’re very receptive to it. But if they think that what you mean by stylish is dressing things up, then they’re very resistant to that.
Is stylish academic writing always synonymous with clarity or might it also be more decorative?
Yeah, for me, it’s the gamut. And I come out of literary studies myself, and people who work in English departments will often value complexity. They’ll actually say I write these long, difficult sentences because there’s a kind of mental discipline that’s needed then, to be able to work through that complexity. I have some resistance to that—to the idea that you’re intentionally making things more complex to your reader, but I can understand the argument and I would like a definition of style or stylishness that allows for that choice.
I love this example in your book of the Formula-1 pit stop crew that helps reinvent the organizational design and workflow of a hospital, making procedures more synchronized and efficient. Can you speak to the importance of cross-disciplinary collaboration? Does style has everything to do with thinking across disciplinary lines?
I think it does. It allows you more choices and it makes you more self-conscious about what you’re doing, so it fits perfectly within that overarching definition of what it means to be stylish. What I really noticed, when I went out to read books and articles by people who have been identified to me by their own peers as stylish writers, or exemplary writers, was how again and again that they were making references to ideas from beyond their own disciplines. That just seemed to be such a component to their way of thinking. And that goes way beyond writing in style on the level of how you construct a sentence. It’s really a mode of thinking that shows intellectual curiosity and voraciousness. Does that mean that interdisciplinarity is a component of stylishness? Not necessarily, but I would say that you have a much wider range of styles or ways of thinking at your disposal if you have an interdisciplinary bent.